In March the Atlanta Falcons signed former 49er defensive end Pierce Holt to a guaranteed three-year, $7.5 million contract. "The 49ers thought things might have been different if they showed how much they wanted me," says Holt of his former team's wooing. "But it's not college anymore. This whole new game reminds me of what [writer and former NFL receiver] Pete Gent once wrote: 'Every time we say it's a game, you say it's a business. And every time we say it's a business, you say it's a game.' "
Heard anyone call it a game recently? Not in any NFL front offices, you haven't. Asked what his job will be like in 1994, Giant general manager George Young replies simply, "There will be blood on the floor." Some of it, no doubt, his own. Panic is evident in the mammoth salaries being commanded by free-agent offensive linemen. Consider that Indianapolis Colt tackle Will Wolford will make more than 49er wideout Jerry Rice this year, Colt center Kirk Lowdermilk more than Green Bay Packer receiver Sterling Sharpe, Fralic more than Dallas Cowboy receiver Michael Irvin. Last year the highest-paid offensive lineman in football was the Washington Redskins' Jim Lachey, at $1.35 million; this year at least 17 other O linemen will make more. "I think people finally realize how important we are," says San Diego Charger left tackle Harry Swayne, who signed a three-year, $5.4 million contract.
Think again, Harry. General managers have just realized that free agency makes everybody important. Suddenly even lowly blockers have other names on their dance cards. There was a time—at least, fans feel there was a time—when players stayed with their teams for years and built an identity that was connected with that franchise. At least some of that nostalgia is based in fact (Terry Bradshaw was with the Pittsburgh Steelers for his entire 14-year career; Walter Payton spent his 13 years in the league with the Chicago Bears), but it probably won't be like that again. In most cases NFL players will become free agents after four years in the league, and they most assuredly will then go wherever they can strike the best financial deal, on-field loyalties—dynasties, even—be damned. "For the difference of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, is it worth it to pick up and go to, say, Tampa?" asks the 49ers' soon-to-be free-agent tackle, Harris Barton. "Probably not. But if it's a substantial amount of money, I'd have to go."
Substantial amount? Used to mean something else, didn't it?
In truth, there won't be any more dynasties. Win a Super Bowl and all of a sudden even your average players think they're worthy of big paychecks. Funny thing is, the rest of the league thinks that too. So a lot of a winning team's players will take off after each season. It's about to happen to the Cowboys, the Super Bowl champs, who in '94 could lose defensive linemen Jimmie Jones and Leon Lett, cornerback Larry Brown, wideout Alvin Harper, guard John Gesek and tackle Erik Williams to free agency. And even if you are willing to pay to keep some of your stars, you won't be able to. The durned cap will get you. So players will come and go like moths on a screen.
The free-agent migration is already well under way. At a recent Jet-Redskin scrimmage, for instance, the announcer said: "At defensive tackle for the Jets, number 70, Leonard Marshall; at cornerback, number 22, Eric Thomas; at free safety, number 42, Ronnie Lott." Jets? Jet$ is more like it. The team spent $11.5 million in the off-season to sign these long-in-the-tooth veterans who, collectively, have been in the league or nearly 30 years. Across the board 129 players fetched more than $350 million in new contracts by changing teams during this inaugural free-agent auction. It won't be quite the same next year because of the projected cap, but there still will be a lot of action on the open market, and the prices in many cases will be plunging. Some stars will get big raises as teams bet their bankrolls on them; other big shots will have to take huge pay cuts or retire, because teams won't have any money left with which to pay them.
The truly interesting thing about the new era is that teams can structure their payrolls any way they want, as long as they pay every player at least the league minimum ($100,000 for rookies this season, $125,000 for players with a year's service, $150,000 for two or more years) and stay under the cap. For example, one team could pay each of the 53 players on its roster [1/53] of the cap, or $579,245 apiece; a weird team could pay its quarterback $25.8 million and divvy up the leavings among everybody else. Which team do you think might have some dissension? Which team's quarterback might not survive the season's first blitz?
In any case, fans might not at first take to the changes wrought by the new collective bargaining agreement. After Wolford, who had spent seven years with the Bills, signed with the division-rival Colts in April, he met some friends at his old hangout, the Big Tree Inn, near Buffalo's Rich Stadium. Before long Wolford was taking serious heat from the patrons over his defection. "Get the——out of here, you——traitor!" shouted one man. Stunned, Wolford split. Innocence cannot long withstand the assault of cash.
"I hate the fact that football people can't make football decisions anymore," says San Diego G.M. Bobby Beathard of the cap's dark effect on his profession. "So many other nonfootball factors will be involved."
But saying money is a nonfootball factor for NFL players is like saying hay is a nonmilk factor for dairy cows. There is some ultimate fairness to what is now transpiring, and if Beathard and his ilk don't like the new deal, sorry. The fact is the new agreement has placed football in the best labor-management shape of any major professional sport, with a contract that runs until the year 2000.